"The Paris of the Plains" - Kansas City, Missouri

"The Paris of the Plains" - Kansas City, Missouri

Kansas City is the closest major city to the geographic center of the contiguous United States. As such, the city has been a hub throughout U.S. history. Officially deemed the City of Fountains—but colloquially referred to as the “Paris of the Plains”—Kansas City is now a burgeoning city for vacationers. Tourism grew by a whopping 500,000 visitors from 2015 to 2016 according to VisitKC.com. You can add yourself to the tally if you venture to the Heart of America this spring.

Getting there by air

It’s pretty easy to get here from anywhere, and there are plenty of choices for the GA flyer.

Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport (KMKC)

The GA-friendly Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport (KMKC) immediately north of the Missouri River will put you in the middle of the action. This historic airport was dedicated by Charles Lindbergh in 1927 and was one of the headquarters for TWA.

With a 24-hour control tower and FBO, Category I ILS, plus full maintenance, decent self-serve fuel prices ($3.99/gallon at the time of this writing), aircraft leasing, flight instruction, hangar rentals and car rentals, KMKC is a busy place for GA, charter and corporate operations on the Missouri-Kansas border. 

Operations at KMKC average around 200 per day according to airnav.com, and the runways (01/19 and 03/21) are long and wide—and well maintained, too: both are listed as excellent. There’s another nice perk at KMKC. A free-of-charge wash bay is provided by the Kansas City Aviation Department for owners to wash their aircraft (cleaning supplies not included). 


You’ve got plenty of GA alternates to choose from—it is the Heart of America, after all. The closest three are all to the east of KMKC. One of these is the non-towered East Kansas City Airport (3GV) in Grain Valley, Missouri, a privately-owned airport that’s been open to the public for more than six decades. Fuel here is also $3.99/gallon.

Lee’s Summit Municipal Airport (KLXT) offers two 4,000-foot runways and two crew cars. The FBO service gets high marks from pilots on Airnav.com. While Avgas is a little higher here ($4.79/gallon for self-serve), KLXT also has Mogas available. That’s not something you’ll find everywhere. 

If you want a super-smooth landing—or at least, all the help you can get with one—the recently resurfaced runways at Midwest National Air Center Airport (KGPH) near Mosby/Excelsior Springs might be the spot for you. This airport is northeast of Kansas City and is relatively new: it opened in 1996. Self-serve Avgas is $4.09/gallon, and the field is quieter with around 33 operations per day. A nice perk at KGPH is that you’ll earn one free night of tiedown for every 10 gallons of fuel you purchase—and they have Mogas, too.

Local pilots Dale and Carol McCaslin recommend making a stop at Miami County Airport (K81) in Paola, Kansas. It’s a short flight to the southwest of KMKC and there’s a good barbecue restaurant on the field. The restaurant is open every day except Mondays; on Sundays, they serve a breakfast menu only. The airport has one paved runway and one grass strip.

The McCaslins are based at 0N0—Roosterville Airport in Liberty, Missouri. They told me that it’s sometimes called “Oh No” because of the 20 x 2,780-foot runway with obstacles. “Some pilots like the challenge,” they said. If you’re one of them, you’ll be rewarded with a fuel price of $3.85/gallon for full service.

Transportation and accommodations

Though Kansas City isn’t the most walkable city in the United States, it’s on its way. The recent addition of streetcars downtown and a comprehensive plan for additional transit means this city may soon be navigable without four wheels as required equipment. 

Introducing electric streetcars in Kansas City has been a resounding success, and they’re completely free to ride. Hours are generous (they run until 2 a.m. on weekends) and there are currently 10 stops.

For accommodations, I’d recommend checking out the hotel finder function at airnav.com. Type in the identifier of your planned landing airport and you’ll get a list of the closest hotels. From there you can reserve a room, as all of the listings have hyperlinks and/or telephone numbers. 

My research showed that hotels near KMKC average between $125 to $160 per night. If you base your search from Kansas City International (KMCI) instead, you’ll find many hotels that run about half that much—but you’ll need to factor in the cost of a rental car. KMCI is well north/northwest of the central city. Museums and attractions TWA Museum

If you tie down at KMKC, your first stop could be the TWA Museum at the south end of the field. With TWA memorabilia from various decades, scaled-down airline models, a cockpit simulator and more, this is a fun spot for any TWA enthusiast. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and admission is $10 for adults ($7 for seniors).


National Airline History Museum

Also on the field at Wheeler is the National Airline History Museum. While the exhibits are closed through the end of this month, a grand reopening is scheduled for March 1, 2018. And if the website is any indication of what’s to come, it’s going to be pretty awesome.

Currently, the museum is fundraising to ferry a Douglas DC-8-62—one of five DC-8s left in service—to the site. The museum has multiple airliners and two simulators, including a custom-built multipurpose simulator and a Link Trainer.

General admission is $8 for adults, and you get to see a ton of stuff, including a TWA Moonliner II rescued after 25 years outside the TWA building; a Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation (N6937C) that was featured in “The Aviator”; a Martin 404 that flew for Eastern Airlines and is now on static display; a Northrop Delta 1D that was restored by Max Conrad; a KC Eaglet made by the American Eagle Aircraft Corp. of Kansas City, which produced over 700 planes in six short years; and the museum’s newest acquisition, a Boeing 727-223. 


Union Station

Kansas City’s architectural masterpiece, Union Station, is impressive inside and out. This enormous building saw its prime in 1945, when a million passengers traveled through on their way across the United States, including thousands of returning U.S. soldiers. But by the 1980s, the station had closed. A renovation of Union Station was completed just before the turn of the new century; Amtrak returned in 2002. 

Today, Union Station is also the terminus for the streetcars, and is open daily from 6 a.m to midnight. Inside there is lots to see, including a permanent exhibit called the KC Rail Experience, plus other galleries that feature international exhibits, a science center called Science City, a 200-seat live theater and an 80-foot 3-D movie screen. National World War I Museum and Memorial

Heading south from Union Station you’ll encounter the Liberty Memorial Tower and the plaza that commemorates the sacrifices of the soldiers of World War I. This National Landmark is over 200 feet tall and quite stately. The observation deck is currently closed for a modernization project, but a museum representative told me it’s targeted to reopen by mid-March of this year. 

The National World War I Museum is recognized as America’s official memorial to World War I and has one of the largest collections of Great War artifacts and documents in the world. The array offers an excellent record of all of the nations involved in the “war to end all wars.” 

The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with expanded hours in the summer. If you can’t make it to the museum in person, the website offers three online exhibits accessible via the Google Arts & Culture project. 


Federal Reserve Bank/ The Money Museum

South of the World War I Museum is the Federal Reserve Bank and inside the bank is the Money Museum. This museum is free and open weekdays from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (The building is closed on bank holidays, of course.) You’ll need a state-issued photo ID or a valid passport to enter. Photography inside is permitted—provided you conform to the policies.

A one-hour guided tour or the self-guided tour allows you to see Harry Truman’s coin collection (500 historic coins on loan from his Presidential Library); the $40 million wall (a giant stack of cash!); educational exhibits on the functions of the Federal Reserve, the U.S. economy and counterfeiting; plus a design-your-own-currency activity for kids. 


Amelia Earhart’s Birthplace

Aviation trailblazer Amelia Earhart hailed from the Kansas City area. To make a pilgrimage Earhart’s birthplace, you’ll have to cross the Missouri River and head to Atchison, Kansas. 

The Gothic Revival home home at 223 N. Terrace Street was declared a National Historic Site in 1971 and was privately owned until it was purchased by the Ninety-Nines Inc. in 1984. 

The museum inside the home offers the public a look at Earhart’s personal and family memorabilia along with displays that highlight Earhart and other female aviators. It’s open Tuesdays through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday afternoons from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults.


The Best Barbecue

Now it’s time to eat! Kansas City is getting high marks from the foodies at Zagat: it was declared one of the “30 Most Exciting Food Cities in America 2017” by the organization, with a number of award-winning chefs and bartenders. But I’m here for the original “slow food”—the barbecue! What about you?

A few of the more noted spots include Gates Bar-B-Q, which has six locations, and Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, which gets a nod from Anthony Bourdain as one of his “13 places to eat before you die.” Joe’s has four locations; three are on the Kansas side of the metro area.

Perhaps the most legendary spot for Kansas City-style barbecue is at Arthur Bryant’s, founded by “King of Ribs” Arthur Bryant. The restaurant has been around for almost a century and though its namesake passed away in 1982, the recipes are going strong at two Kansas City locations.

These are just a few of more than a hundred restaurants that specialize in barbecue in Kansas City. If you really want to try one of everything (well, almost), consider taking the KC Barbecue Tour. You’ll be bussed around to sample various restaurants’ offerings with little to no wait time. Tickets are $65 for the Original tour with four stops, and $70 for the three-stop “‘Cue and Brew” tour that includes a complimentary beer or soft drink at each stop. The tour is a hit with locals and visitors alike. 

Kansas City isn’t simply an old rock ‘n roll tune, or a place to eat barbecue before you die. It’s not even the only of the United States’ “twin cities” to share a name across two states. With a reputation for being both down-home and up-and-coming—and now, as a growing destination city—you might want to say “Kansas City, here I come!” before the airspace gets too crowded.

Sources: airlinehistory.org, airnav.com, ameliaearhartmuseum.org, unionstation.org, visitKC.com, wikipedia.org.

Heather Skumatz is production coordinator for Cessna Flyer. Send questions or comments to



Visit Kansas City
Airnav.com’s “Hotel Reservations for Aviation”
Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport (KMKC)
East Kansas City Airport (3GV)
Lee’s Summit Municipal Airport (KLXT)
Miami County Airport (K81)
Midwest National Air Center Airport (KGPH)
Roosterville Airport (0N0)
Airline History Museum
Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum
KC Barbecue Tours
The Money Museum
The National WWI Museum 
Union Station


Engine Overhauls, Illustrated

Engine Overhauls, Illustrated

Most engines are “sent out” to specialty shops for overhaul. Peek behind the doors at Triad Aviation as author Jacqueline Shipe guides you through engine overhaul procedures. 

The single biggest repair expense most airplane owners will ever face is an engine overhaul. Overhaul costs increase every year along with parts prices. The engine overhaul process has become somewhat of a specialized procedure. Most mechanics won’t consider overhauling an engine themselves. The engine is typically removed and sent out for overhaul.  


When is an overhaul necessary?

The first step in the overhaul process is determining that an engine does in fact need an overhaul. Mere time since the last overhaul doesn’t always equate to needing to overhaul an engine. Part 135 operators must legally comply with engine manufacturers’ recommended times between overhauls. However, the only legal requirement for everyone else is engine condition. 

An engine that is run regularly (at least once a week) with cylinders that have good compressions with no exhaust valve leakage is a good candidate to keep running. Regular oil changes must consistently demonstrate that no excessive metal is being produced by the engine. Such an engine can safely and legally go beyond the manufacturer’s recommended time between overhauls (TBO). 

Cylinder issues can be resolved by replacing the affected cylinder, or by completing a “top” overhaul and replacing all the cylinders.

So, what might indicate it’s time for an overhaul? Excessive amounts of metal that have been determined to be coming from the bottom end parts (camshaft, lifter bodies, gears or crankshaft bearings) is one sign. If an engine has crankcase cracks that are outside allowable limits, it’s time. If an engine has problems producing its rated power even though cylinder compressions are good and fuel and ignition systems are within limits and working properly, an overhaul is likely needed in the near future. (For more, see “Is Your Engine Worn Out?” by Steve Ells in the October 2017 issue. —Ed.)


The overhaul process

An overhaul always includes a complete disassembly of the engine, thorough cleaning and inspection of parts, repair of parts as needed and disposal of defective parts. 

Major items such as the crankshaft, crankcase and connecting rods are subject to special inspections. 

Parts that are subjects of Airworthiness Directives or Service Bulletins are typically replaced or repaired in accordance with the steps outlined in the AD or bulletin. 

Parts are measured for excessive wear and proper clearances. The allowable dimensions and clearances are given in the manufacturer’s overhaul manual in two separate columns; one for manufacture (new) limits and one for service limits. The service limits are larger and allow for looser fits than manufacture limits. Some shops rebuild engines based on manufacture limits, while others use service limits. 



The crankshaft is arguably the most important component in an aircraft engine. It absorbs the force generated by the reciprocating strokes of the pistons and rods and transforms it into rotational force for the propeller. The crankshaft is continuously subjected to loads and stresses from engine operation and the rotating propeller. Cracks or defects on a crankshaft can cause sudden engine failure or excessive, premature wear on the bearings. As a result, the crankshaft is probably the most inspected, measured and scrutinized part in the entire engine during the overhaul.

After engine disassembly, the crankshaft is cleaned and degreased in a chemical vat, dried and inspected. Most shops have a Magnaflux machine to inspect the crankshaft for cracks. 

The crankshaft is clamped between two copper-plated pads and an electric current is sent through the crankshaft to magnetize it. 

The crankshaft is then coated with a fluorescent solution containing magnetic particles. If there is a fracture in the crankshaft, the magnetic particles will align along the edges of the fracture. The fluorescent solution makes cracks easy to see under a black light. 

Once the magnetic particle inspection is complete, the crankshaft is cleaned again, and each journal is polished. Some shops have a machine that spins the crankshaft while a polishing rag is held stationary on one journal at a time with a special tool. Other shops use a machine with a circular cloth that is spun around each journal. The polishing process removes light scoring and surface corrosion as well as providing a clean journal surface so that good measurements can be obtained of each journal. 

Excessive scoring or pits caused by corrosion that cannot be removed by polishing the crankshaft can usually be removed by grinding off a specified amount of material. The manufacturer sets the sizes to which the crank can be reground, and it varies based on the engine model. Most Lycoming crankshafts can be ground to three-thousandths, six-thousandths or ten-thousandths of an inch undersize. Continental usually allows five-thousandths or ten-thousandths undersize. 

Once the crankshaft has been ground down to limits (referred to in the field as “ten under”), any further scoring or pitting defects in the journals will most likely result in the crankshaft being scrapped at the next overhaul. Reground crankshafts require oversize bearings to maintain proper clearances.

When all the machining and polishing processes are complete, the diameters of the main bearing journals and connecting rod bearing journals are measured with a micrometer at several points around the circumference of each journal. The smallest measured diameter is used to determine if each journal is within limits. 

The inside diameters of the connecting rod and crankcase main bearings are measured by installing the bearings and temporarily installing the bolts and nuts, securing the case halves and connecting rod halves together. A telescoping gauge is then used to measure the inside diameter of the bearings. Clearances are obtained by subtracting the journal diameter from the bearing internal diameter. Clearances must fall within the limits set by the manufacturer.

The crankshaft is also measured for straightness (or run-out) using a dial indicator. The crankshaft is placed in a holder that supports the crankshaft while still allowing it to rotate. A dial indicator reading is then usually taken on the rear main journal as well as the crankshaft flange. The readings must not exceed allowable limits. 

It is a fairly rare occurrence when a crankshaft is rejected. Aircraft crankshafts are constructed with high-quality metals at manufacture and, barring misuse or a prop strike, generally pass inspections through multiple overhauls. 

If the crankshaft needs to be replaced for any reason, it adds a significant amount to the cost of an overhaul. Some shops try to help owners by finding a serviceable used crankshaft, which is usually one-half to one-third the cost of a new crankshaft. 



The crankcase provides the housing to hold all the internal components (crankshaft, camshaft, rods) as well as providing a place to attach the cylinders, accessory case and oil sump. The crankcase is made of cast aluminum and must be strong enough to absorb all the opposing forces of the engine as it is in operation. 

Crankcases receive a thorough cleaning and inspection at overhaul. 

Some shops use abrasive media to clean the case and some use a chemical vat. Chemical-only cleaning processes are preferred because residue from blast material is difficult to remove from all the creases and recesses in the case. Any leftover media causes scratching and scoring once the engine is placed back in operation. 

Crankcases are inspected for cracks using a dye penetrant inspection. The case is saturated in fluorescent colored penetrant, then rinsed. The penetrant seeps into cracks making them easily seen once the case is sprayed with developer or examined under a black light.

Some cases are more prone to cracking than others. As an example, Lycoming “narrow deck” cases crack far more often than the thicker “wide deck” cases. Narrow deck cases utilize cylinders that have a thinner hold-down flange. The cylinder base nuts are Allen head (internal wrenching) types; while the wide deck cases have cylinders with thicker hold-down flange with standard six-sided nuts. Cracks can sometimes be welded and repaired depending on their location. 

Cases can have fretting damage or small areas of corrosion where the case halves are joined, especially near through-bolts. Cases with damage are generally sent to specialized machine shops such as DivCo or Crankcase Services to have the mating surfaces machined smooth. Some shops “line bore” the center bearing areas so that the crankshaft main bearings are perfectly straight and aligned with the each other. 

Regardless of whether the case is simply cleaned and inspected or sent out for further machine work, the mating surfaces of the case halves must be smooth and perfectly flat to ensure a proper seal once they are assembled. A silk thread is used to seal the case halves along with a special non-hardening compound designed to hold the thread in place as the case halves are assembled. Any irregularities in the mating surfaces will result in case leaks. 

Crankcases, like crankshafts, are expensive to replace and can add significantly to the cost of an overhaul if replacement is required. 


Connecting rods

Connecting rods are Magnafluxed, cleaned and dimensionally checked at overhaul. Connecting rod bearings along with the bolts and nuts that secure the rod halves are always replaced at overhaul. Connecting rod bushings are not always replaced, depending on the wear and condition on the bushings. 

The rods are checked with special dowel tools to be sure they aren’t bent or twisted. The connecting rod is turned sideways and held in a vertical plane. One dowel slides through the connecting rod bushing and the other through the crankshaft bearing. After they are inserted, the ends of the dowels are laid on perfectly-matched metal blocks. The four ends of each dowel pin should lay perfectly flat if the rod is not twisted at all. 

The dowels are left in place and a special gauge is attached to the end of the crankshaft bearing dowel. This gauge telescopes and it is extended until it touches the end of the shorter connecting rod bushing dowel.

After this measurement is made, the gauge is removed and placed on the opposite end of the crankshaft bearing dowel. If the rod is square and not bent, the gauge will line up and touch the short dowel on the opposite side without being extended or shortened.


Camshaft and lifters

The camshaft and lifter bodies are generally replaced or sent out to be reground to remove any light scoring marks or surface deformities. The camshaft lobes go through a carburizing process to harden them at manufacture. The depth of the carburized layer of metal is not very deep (about fifteen-thousandths of an inch) and it is possible for machine shops to accidentally grind below that layer. The camshaft lobe would wear down rapidly once placed in use if that happened. Additionally, the lobes are not only elliptically shaped, but they have a slight taper across the top of the lobe to ensure that the lifter body spins as it contacts the lobe. It takes very precise machine work when grinding the lobe to maintain its original shape and the taper across the top. Camshafts should only be sent to high-quality, experienced machine shops like Aircraft Specialties for machining work. 

Camshafts are not terribly expensive when purchased new (compared to major parts like crankshafts or cases). Typically, the cost of buying a new camshaft and all the lifters is only a few hundred dollars more than having the old ones reground. 

(For more on camshafts and lifters, see Jacqueline Shipe’s July 2017 article in Cessna Flyer. —Ed.)

Accessory case, oil sump, gears

The accessory case and oil sump are typically cleaned, inspected and reused. The Lycoming oil sumps that have intake pipes routed through the sump are reswedged around the intake pipe end to ensure there are no leaks down the road. This involves using a special tool which swells the pipe back out a little so that it forms a better seal when it is inserted into the sump opening.

The accessory case is inspected with dye penetrant and cleaned. The gears in the accessory case are cleaned, Magnafluxed and reused. 



Individual cylinder assemblies can be overhauled, but by the time the valves, guides and seats are replaced, the cost is almost equal to the cost of a new cylinder. Most overhaul facilities that I’m familiar with install new cylinders rather than overhauling the old ones. 

The cylinder must absorb the heat and pressure of combustion every time it completes a cycle while in operation. Metal fatigues over time and with a relatively low cost difference between new and overhauled cylinders, new cylinders are the best choice for long-lasting operation. They also typically come with their own warranties, so shops like them. 

It’s important to note that there is no logbook tracking for individual cylinder assemblies. Times in operation are kept of engines, but not of the individual engine parts. Therefore, it is impossible to really know how much operating time cylinders have on them when purchasing overhauled cylinders outright. The times that are on the existing installed cylinders on an engine can be difficult to trace unless they were new at the time of installation. 


Fuel system

The fuel injection system or carburetor is generally sent out for overhaul at a specialty shop or replaced with a new unit. Very few overhaul facilities overhaul the fuel system components in-house. Even Lycoming gets all the fuel injection system components and carburetors for both their new and rebuilt engines from Avstar Fuel Systems in Florida. 


Accessories and other items

All other accessories are typically sent to specialty shops for an overhaul or are replaced with new. Magnetos, ignition harnesses and vacuum pumps are generally replaced with new units. Alternators and starters are generally rebuilt. 

Oil coolers should always be sent out for specialized porting and cleaning to be sure all metal particles and sludge buildup is completely removed. The oil passages through the coolers make several 180-degree turns. Small metal particles and contaminants build up in the coolers around the curves and it is impossible to remove all the debris with just a simple flushing. Oftentimes, new oil coolers are fairly inexpensive, and it is easier and cheaper to simply replace them rather than overhaul them. 

All hoses should be replaced at overhaul. Hoses deteriorate with age and exposure to heat, and should be replaced periodically. New hose installations also help prevent contaminating the freshly overhauled engine with any sludge or debris remaining in the hose. 

It’s also a good idea to replace all the SCAT hoses. Most of the tubing (like the aluminum oil return lines) is cleaned, inspected and reused.


Choosing an overhaul facility

Engine overhauls are extremely expensive. When it’s time to overhaul an engine, choosing a high-quality facility to do the job is important. The best way to choose where to send an engine is usually by personal referral. Ask other owners what shop(s) they have used and what the long-term results have been. Owners or operators that have put three to five hundred hours on an engine usually know by that time whether the overhaul was a good one. Low cylinder compressions, oil leaks or other problems are signs that the overhaul may not have been the best. 

Most Part 91 owners only have to face an engine overhaul once. The process can be stressful to go through. Owners who do lots of research ahead of time, understand the process and ask lots of questions can help to avoid major problems down the road. 




Jacqueline Shipe grew up in an aviation home; her dad was a flight instructor. She soloed at age 16 and went on to get her CFII and ATP certificate. Shipe also attended Kentucky Tech and obtained an airframe and powerplant license. She has worked as a mechanic for the airlines and on a variety of General Aviation planes. She’s also logged over 5,000 hours of flight instruction time. Send question or comments to



ENGINE OVERHAULS Airmark Overhaul airmarkoverhaul.com

Granite Air Center graniteair.com


Poplar Grove Airmotive poplargroveairmotive.com/engine-shop

RAM Aircraft ramaircraft.com

Triad Aviation hhtriad.com


CRANKCASE INSPECTION / REPAIR Aircraft Specialties Services aircraft-specialties.com

Crankcase Services, Inc. crankcaseservices.com

DivCo, Inc. divcoinc.com


FUEL SYSTEM OVERHAUL Avstar Fuel Systems, Inc. avstardirect.com


Aircraft Accessories of Oklahoma aircraftaccessoriesofok.com


Q&A: Alternator Belt Replacement, Fuel Burn, Alternatives for a New Spinner

Hi Steve,

I’m looking for the proper dimensions of an alternator belt—primarily the [correct] width—and maybe the original manufacturer’s name and part number. 

In about 180 hours since January of last year, we have replaced three belts on my 1981 Cessna 182 Skylane and are trying to discover the problem. 

So far, we’ve been looking at alignment, pulley smoothness and whether we have the proper belt. Do you have other ideas?




The High and the Writey: Young Heroes, Yesterday and Today

A conversation next to a B-17 can reach across generations.

I asked Steve, a local teenaged ramp rat, to go with me to the airport to look at two World War II bombers that were visiting for the weekend. I am a student of—and at my age, damn near a remnant of—that period of flying.

Today’s display models visiting Lexington, Kentucky were a B-24 and a B-17. Exquisitely restored right down to their machine guns, these aircraft gave the ramp some much-needed class. Warbirds are a big deal at our airport, where it’s much more typical to see a Cessna doing touch-and-goes on a nice afternoon. Tangible reminders of air combat are almost never on our field.

We bought our tickets and sauntered out to the ramp where this seasoned pilot did something he hadn’t done very much of during the past decade or so: I walked around a big airplane. 

See, in the world of airlines where I spent my professional life, the captain rarely does a walkaround or preflight. That is flight engineer or copilot territory. For the type rating and subsequent recurrent training sessions, captains like me had to display knowledge of and the ability to do a walkaround, but to see a captain out on the ramp for a preflight is rare.

On this bright, sunny day, with Steve in tow, I started around the B-17. I noticed that the public, while seeming to like the aircraft, didn’t seem to get much out of simply being around it. I think this is because people nowadays look upon warbirds like the B-17 as some sort of idealized toy. They have no idea what the people who flew them went through. 

I stopped under the right outboard engine and pointed to the turbocharger that was attached to the bottom. It was gray and innocuous—not something that the public would notice—and I wanted Steve to see it. “This device made high-altitude bombing possible,” I explained.

My statement prompted Steve to give a “humor the old pilot” shrug, so I resisted the urge to tell him about constant-speed props, fuel vents, hydraulics, the Norden bombsight, ADF loop antennas, Rosemount probes and the vital importance of Jimmy Doolittle establishing 100 octane fuel as the military standard before the war.

The public perception of flying today is that it is a way to get to Seattle in a hurry and on the cheap. Over the past few years when I’m riding in the back with passengers, I’ve noticed that one of the first things most window-seat travelers do is close the shade so they can’t see outside. 

It seems that flying at eight-tenths the speed of sound seven miles up is a cause for boredom instead of wonder. Flying to most people is now a commodity, like chicken strips or low-fat sour cream. The magic is gone for them because they have forgotten just how miraculous it is.

Most people today think of World War II-era aircraft as clean, shiny appliances that represent a time they barely comprehend. They see the machines, but they do not smell the cordite, the blood or the fear the crews experienced.

My companion Steve is a victim of this video game mentality about the war as well, and he began to fidget as he thought of the hundreds of other, more fun things he could be doing right now instead of following a geezer around some airplane.

“Steve,” I said, “look around you—what do you see?”

“A bunch of old-looking geeks wearing polyester ball caps,” he said.

“You’re right. Most of these old-looking guys are probably here because either they flew aircraft in the war or knew people who did. It was over 70 years ago, so these guys are pretty ancient. But do you know what I see?”

“That girl over there wearing that tank top?”

“What I was going to say is, what I see when I see these old men limping around this bomber is how they see themselves, even to this day: a bunch of brave teenagers who are about to save a planet from the worst of fates—a totalitarian nightmare. If Hitler and Tojo had won the war, we’d still be feeling its effects, or would not be alive at all.”

“The old guys that you are looking at left their homes when they were very young. They did not sign up for the promise of a college education, to learn a trade, or to receive a welcome-home parade. They signed up for ‘duration plus six months,’ meaning they were in the war until they were dead or we had won.”

“After undergoing harsh aerial training that killed way too many of them, they flew these unpressurized bombers over enemy targets bristling with guns and fighters.”

“Most of these teenage bomber commanders had less than 300 hours total flight time when they were put in charge of their planes and crews. Their instrument time was limited to whatever training they had gotten in the States and a few scant practice sessions after deployment.”

“With less instrument time than the average Cessna 172 instrument pilot school graduate, they were flying four-engine bombers in formation through the clouds and very nasty weather, often at night.”

“More than 55,000 of these teenagers never came back. Every loss of a B-17 meant that 10 crewmembers were gone as well. If they survived parachuting over Europe, they faced starvation and worse in a prison camp. If they bailed out over Japan or anywhere in the Pacific theater, they faced torture, death and possibly becoming a meal for sharks.”

Steve just looked at me. “I haven’t seen you so worked up over a subject since they stopped loading the M&Ms you like in the FBO candy machine,” he said.

I could tell that he still hadn’t made the connection between the bombers, the old guys and himself. “Steve, most of these guys were the age you are right now when they went to war. The odds of them completing all the missions unhurt or uncaptured were completely against them.”

“They knew every morning when they rolled out of their bunks in the predawn to eat breakfast and go bomb Europe or Japan that, statistically, they had no chance of going home alive.”

“When the lucky ones got home from the war, there was no professional flying for them to do. The airlines hired a few veterans, but there was no flying gig for the tens of thousands of other qualified pilots returning home. General Aviation as we know it today was just getting started. These returning pilots quietly hung up their goggles, got jobs in factories or on farms, and raised their families.

“Now the few that are left are out here on the ramp, looking at these bombers in a way that you or I never will.”

“When I look at a B-24, I might notice that the navigator’s station has a temp probe sticking out of the window. A veteran remembers what it was like to sit in that metal box in the freezing cold, hearing shrapnel from flak tearing his aircraft apart.”

“People today look upon these aircraft as quaint reminders of when a B-17 was considered a heavy strategic bomber; these guys remember washing the blood off the floors after a mission or watching another bomber crew—friends of theirs—spin in over Belgium with no chutes sighted.”

Steve nodded and wandered off to talk to the tank top girl. I was left to talk to myself for a while. Luckily, in today’s world of cell phone solo-talkers, nobody thought it strange that I was standing out in the sun, mumbling to myself on the ramp while speaking to no one:

It is the survivors who always get the last word on a subject. These old guys wandering the ramp can speak of the war of their youth and describe a little bit about what it was like back then, but the 55,000-plus guys who are buried in veteran cemeteries and small plots in Europe and the Pacific are permanently stuck in time as teenagers, full of potential that was never used. How many pilots that could have cured cancer or averted the Vietnam War died in the skies, never getting to lead their lives?

Steve came back after I’d been standing by myself for a while. He had a shy grin on his face. “What happened, Steve? Did you get a date with her or something?”

“No,” he said. “She told me she was here with her great-grandpa. I got to talk with him for a few minutes and he said that when he was my age, he’d just met a girl at his training base in the U.S. when his unit was called up and sent to fly B-29s over Japan. They’d promised to stay in touch, but he’d lost track of her and never saw her again.”

“I got to thinking—what if I had to go fight in North Korea or somewhere just after I met a girl I was meant to be with, and then never saw her again because I died or was hurt? Things are not really any different today, are they?”

I think he was starting to get the picture.